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October 24th, 2013 (AFP) – North Korean officials were in Panama Wednesday to check on 35 of their sailors held for allegedly smuggling undeclared Cuban military goods in an apparent UN sanctions violation.
“The only thing they have addressed is to go see the conditions in which the sailors are detained,” prosecutor Javier Caraballo told reporters.
The men also paid a courtesy visit to Panama’s top prosecutor Ana Belfon.
Political counselor Ra Yun Bak and Havana-based diplomat Ri Il Gyu were due to discuss the sailors’ fate with Caraballo and others during their two-day visit, a government source said.
The sailors are detained at Fort Sherman, a former US military base. They have access to satellite television, air conditioning, a dining area, smokers’ area and even a beach.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez said that 33 of the 35 sailors could be released during the diplomats’ visit if prosecutors accept Cuba’s argument that the crew did not know they were carrying hidden military materiel.
But Caraballo had said he expected the investigation to conclude around early November.
The sailors were on board the Chong Chon Gang, which was intercepted July 10 as it tried to enter the Panama Canal on suspicion of carrying drugs.
Authorities instead uncovered 25 containers of military hardware, including two Soviet era MiG-21 fighter jets, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.
Both Havana and Pyongyang said they were “obsolete” Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract.
The communist allies did not explain why the items were buried under more than 200,000 sacks of sugar.
The ship’s crew members face up to 12 years in prison if convicted on arms trafficking charges.
The Panama Canal Authority announced in September that it had slapped a $1 million fine on the ship.
In August, the Panamanian government said the United Nations had determined that the shipment violated sanctions against arms transfers to North Korea.
The sanctions were imposed over the reclusive country’s controversial nuclear program.